Day 3 was the day to cross the infamous wall that we have heard so much about. You know, the wall the Pope kissed, the wall that supposedly destroyed the chance of the Palestinians to do anything, the wall that essentially stopped the suicide bombing attacks that killed at least 600 Israeli civilians.
To my American eyes, the wall was a jolt. As we passed through the checkpoint in a breeze, I actually had to ask Chanan Elias, my gracious host from The Face of Israel, if that was the infamous wall. His reply was yes. I incredulously asked, “That is what the fuss is all about? We have bigger walls all over the United States.” It wasn’t very big. It doesn’t loom over anything. It’s part of the way down a hill and is utterly dwarfed by everything around it.
Interesting start to the day’s adventure.
All stops on today’s itinerary were in disputed territory in the West Bank. We passed through a couple small Palestinian villages and then arrived in Pesagot.
At Pesagot we visited the winery. I might as well have been back home visiting any winery in California: the oak barrels, the fermenting tanks, the display of wines for sale. The people at the winery explained that the vines were planted on previously unproductive land, cultivated, and now are producing award-winning wines. Wines that are kosher. Kosher wines that taste good, you ask? Yes, I tasted a 2011 Cabernet and it was as fine as any.
I asked about displacement of Palestinians to create Pesagot, the response was that this was not a residential or agricultural spot and hadn’t been used for a very long time.
We left the winery and drove to Ariel, location of Ariel University with 15,000 students.
During the journey, I simply could not help but notice the Palestinian villages, noted by the black water tanks whereas the Israelis use white, were almost indistinguishable as Palestinian based on the endless stories in the media about the horrid conditions forced on the Palestinians. The squalor was missing! The tin shacks of a Brazilian favela were nowhere to be seen!
These were nice homes clustered in villages that looked like any I would expect to see, except significantly nicer. In nearly every cluster of Palestinian homes there was a beautiful three to five story mansion either on top of the hill or just in with the other houses. Sometimes there were several. One town, right before Shilo, was a Palestinian gated community of approximately 50 of these massive, beautiful, new mansions. It might have well been a tony suburb of Dallas.
The other thing I inquired about were that some cars had yellow license plates and others had white. Yellow license plates are Israeli and white are Palestinian. But they are all driving on the same roads? Yes, and I also could not differentiate the cars other than the license plate color. The Israelis and Palestinians all were driving similar cars. I would have thought, based on the news coverage, that the Palestinians only drove 30 year old Syrian hand-me-downs.
Also along the way, off to our left as we drove along highway 60, were Ramallah and Rawabi. Ramallah was a surprisingly modern looking city, only observed from a distance I realize, with several modern high rises with a very clean looking surrounding cityscape. Rawabi is a massive new city, master planned by the Palestinian Authority, to provide this a nice community for 40,000 people.
We arrived at Ariel, a hilltop, university town, with a little guard post and a single guard who opened the basic lift-arm and waved us in. We drove around and up to the main administration building. I felt like I could have been in any little college town in the United States. We were greeted and brought in to meet the Chancellor, Yigal Cohen Orgad. We had a little lunch and talked about the University. It is highly focused on medicine and biotechnology, the aim is to help the lives of people.
I inquired about Palestinian students, do they attend as well? Yes, there are hundreds, plus Arab-Israelis. Have there been incidents, are the Palestinian students safe, do they get harassed? No, they are treated exactly the same as everyone else and we haven’t had incidents.
Back on the road again, this time to Samaria, our final stop of the day. An iIsraeli industrial park surrounded by Palestinian villages. Makes sense, economic activity lifts everyone right?
I went in to Shamir Salads facility. We entered a meeting room and met the CEO, Amiram Guy, and Israeli. We tasted the variety of hummus, babaganoush, and other dips they make at the plant. All were delicious by the way, and I discovered that I prefer Druze style hummus, which is slight less ground beans.
How many employees do you have and how many are Palestinian? We have 140 total employees and between 90 and 100 are Palestinian. What kind of wages do you pay them? Average they make net US $2000 per month plus health and pension, which is four to five times the average teacher salary in Palestinian controlled areas, this is a high wage for this area. Do you provide them safe working conditions? Yes, we follow every Israeli law. Do you have any issues with violence? No, we have not had any problems.
I surprised everyone when I said I wanted to go and tour the factory, see it for myself. You see, I grew up in and around the food business. I know what a U.S. factory like this should look like, smell like, safety measures, equipment, and the like.
So we went out to the factory and put on the gear to protect the food from contamination from us.
Indeed, nearly every worker was Palestinian, and this was a modern, food processing facility. It looked like it could have been anywhere in the United States, all equipment looked similar, basic processes were identical, standard safety procedures were in place, except there was mainly Arabic in the air and not English or Spanish. Amazing.
We made one additional stop to visit the Israeli local governing body. The mayor was a kindly man who took pains to explain to meet their desire to work with and help the Palestinians, regardless of the top diplomats. He explained how when they purchased new municipal water filtration equipment, they offered free water, no strings attached, to the surrounding Palestinian communities but the Palestinian authorities flatly rejected it.
Finally back to Jerusalem. We arrived back at the vaunted wall and highly publicized checkpoint. I made sure to really look around and observe the area. I spotted one Palestinian family camped out near the wall, it appeared they were just there temporarily for the day. Otherwise, this looked far less ominous or dominating than the U.S. border near Tijuana, Mexico. I almost laugh to compare the two, especially with the furor over this checkpoint expressed in the international media.
We drove up, there were multiple lanes for traffic, armed Israeli soldiers manning each lane, checking the papers of people passing through. We got the twice over because of me in the passenger seat not speaking to the guard in Hebrew. I observed a van of Palestinians, to my right, having their papers checked. And then we were waved through.
Has no journalist ever crossed the Mexico/U.S. border from Mexico? You have got to be kidding me. Crossing from the Palestinian side to the Israeli side was a simple compared to crossing from Mexico to the U.S. at a border checkpoint. Getting into the U.S. takes hours waiting in line, far more visible security cameras and device, a more menacing looking facility, and a near interrogation from U.S. officials.
I understand that I didn’t visit any refugee camps today that still exist in the West Bank. But clearly, what has been portrayed in the media is far away from the reality on the ground.
Thank you to Vicky Culver, Haole Craig, the Gorson’s, Andrew in Austin, TX, and everyone else for contributing so far.
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